Tips for Creating Meaningful Portraits

Generally, a portrait photographer’s goal is to capture the essence of a person. In a split second, the camera ¬†records a single moment that can tell the subject’s story. Learning this art of bringing out the defining qualities of an individual is a long process. You must master more than camera technique–in most cases, you must also work to flatter your subject without making them look like someone else. Here are just a handful of tips that can turn average snapshots into meaningful portraits:

  • Let your subject know what to expect. Most people show up to a photo shoot feeling a little nervous or awkward. Talk to them about your plan for the session and what you’ll be asking them to do. A few minutes of chatting will usually ease your model’s tension around not knowing what to do.

  • Shoot from slightly above eye level. In most cases, a raised camera angle accentuates the face’s best features.

Meaningful Portraits

Sam’s Second Shoot by Harsha K R

  • Eyes are the windows to the soul; accentuate them. Ask your model to look at the top of your camera. The brand name is a good place to direct their gaze. It will still look like your subject is looking directly into the lens, but their eyes will be open wider than if they were to actually look at the lens.

  • Moves the hands and arms. Give your models something to do with their arms so they aren’t hanging limply or pressed firmly against their bodies.

  • Avoid shooting straight on to your model. Have your subject turn at an angle to the camera. Straight-on portraits sometimes work, but they usually make the person look stiff as a statue.

  • Do minimal posting. Rather than asking him or her to pose in a particular way, watch for your subject to get into his or her natural stance and then make small adjustments that flatter their figure and flatter their features.

  • Opt for a normal or telephoto lens for portraiture. Wide angle lenses distort features, while telephoto lenses compress. A 50mm prime lens is my go-to portrait lens, but other photographers prefer 85mm or greater.

  • Show some personality. Make them laugh to get a genuine smile. Asking your subject to smile will, more often than not, result in a forced grin.

  • For a more serious portrait, ask your subject to take a few slow, deep breaths, and wait until he or she is relaxed before taking the shot. Or ask a serious question and take a picture as they consider their answer.

  • Use soft light unless you’re looking for intentional harshness. Shoot at dawn or dusk, or diffuse your light source to avoid harsh light that produced undesirable shadows on your subject’s face.

Meaningful Portraits

Bamboo by Daniel Zedda

  • Make sure there are catchlights in the person’s eyes. Catchlights add life to your portraits. If you don’t see that sparkle, ask your subject to turn toward the light until you see reflections in their eyes.

Technically speaking, a portrait is any picture of a person. But a meaningful portrait is more than just an image of someone’s likeness. Slow down and plan your photo session to give viewers a glimpse of your subject’s true colors. Do you have any tried and true tips or tricks that help you bring out your models’ personalities?

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Profile photo of Nicoal Price About Nicoal Price

‚ÄčNicoal is a New England photographer with a penchant for learning. Her work ranges from nature-inspired portraiture to outdoor product photography. Visit for more info.

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